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26 FEBRUARY, 2015

E.B. White on How to Write for Children and the Writer’s Responsibility to All Readers

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“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”

The loving and attentive reader of children’s books knows that the best of them are not one-dimensional oversimplifications of life but stories that tackle with elegant simplicity such complexities as uncertainty, loneliness, loss, and the cycle of life. And anyone who sits with this awareness for a moment becomes suddenly skeptical of the very notion of a “children’s” book. Maurice Sendak certainly knew that when he scoffed in his final interview: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Seven decades earlier, J.R.R. Tolkien had articulated the same sentiment, with more politeness and academic rigor, in his terrific essay on why there is no such thing as writing “for children.” But one of the finest, most charming and most convincing renunciations of the myths about writing for children comes from E.B. White, nearly two decades after he sneezed Charlotte’s Web.

In a 1969 interview, included in the altogether unputdownable The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV (public library) — which also features wonderfully wide-ranging conversations with Haruki Murakami, Maya Angelou, Ezra Pound, Marilynne Robinson, William Styron and more — White turns his formidable amalgam of wit and wisdom to our culture’s limiting misconceptions about storytelling “for children.”

When the interviewer asks whether there is “any shifting of gears” in writing children’s books, as opposed to the grownup nonfiction for which he is best known, White responds with the rare combination of conviction and nuance:

Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears. But I don’t want to evade your question. There is a difference between writing for children and for adults. I am lucky, though, as I seldom seem to have my audience in mind when I am at work. It is as though they didn’t exist.

Echoing Ursula Nordstrom — the visionary editor and patron saint of childhood who brought to life not only Charlotte’s Web but also such classics as Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Giving Tree, and who famously insisted that children never want a blunt creative edge — White adds:

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In Charlotte’s Web, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that.

E. B. White's drawings of the vectors of the web-spinning process. Click image for more.

Long before psychologists knew that language is central to how human imagination evolves, White is especially adamant about the blunting of language:

Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn’t know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I’m lucky again: my own vocabulary is small, compared to most writers, and I tend to use the short words. So it’s no problem for me to write for children. We have a lot in common.

Like C.S. Lewis, who contemplated what writing for children reveals about the key to authenticity in all writing, White extrapolates the writer’s responsibility to all audiences:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter… A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

[…]

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me.

The Paris Review Interviews, vol. IV is a treasure trove in its totality. Complement this particular gem with E.B. White on the future of reading, what makes a great city, his satirical take on the difference between love and passion, and his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in life.

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25 FEBRUARY, 2015

Virginia Woolf on Writing and Self-Doubt

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Consolation for those moments when you can’t tell whether you’re “the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”

“Bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt,” Charles Bukowski lamented in an interview. Self-doubt is a familiar state for all who put pieces of their inner lives into the outside world — that is, for all artists. “Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical,” Anna Deavere Smith counseled in her indispensable Letters to a Young Artist. And yet, integral as it may be to the creative experience by offering an antidote to the arrogance that produces most mediocre art, self-doubt isn’t something we readily or heartily embrace. Instead, we run from it, we judge it, and we hedge against it using a range of coping mechanisms, many of which backfire into self-loathing. “Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt,” Zadie Smith advised in her ten rules of writing.

But hardly anyone has captured this exasperating dance with self-doubt — which is part of the artist’s universal and necessary dance with fear — better than Virginia Woolf, she of enduring wisdom on creativity and consciousness and the challenge of writing about the soul.

In Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her subversive 1928 novel, regarded as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — Woolf captures the anguishing self-doubt with which all artists tussle along the creative process, rendering in spectacular relief the particular granularity familiar to writers:

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Complement with Woolf on how to read a book, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice, then revisit this evolving library of great writers’ wisdom on writing.

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25 FEBRUARY, 2015

What Comes After Religion: The Search for Meaning in Secular Life

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“We need reminders to be good, places to reawaken awe, something to reawaken our kinder, less selfish impulses…”

In their series of animated essays, The School of Life have contemplated what great books do for the soul, how to merge money and meaning, and what philosophy is for. Now comes a wonderful animation that builds on School of Life founder Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion (public library) to explore what comes after religion and how we can begin to address the deeper existential yearnings which led us to create religion in the first place — a meditation that calls to mind Sam Harris’s recent guide to spirituality without religion and the broader question of how we fill our lives with meaning.

Transcribed highlights below.

Fewer and fewer people believe nowadays. It’s possible that in a generation, there simply won’t be religion across Europe and large sections of North America, Australia, and Asia. That’s not necessarily a problem — but it’s worth thinking about why people made up religion in the first place.

[…]

We may no longer believe, but the needs and longings that made us make up these stories go on: We’re lonely, and violent; we long for beauty, wisdom, and purpose; we want to live for something more than just ourselves.

Society tells us to direct our hopes in two areas: romantic love and professional success. And it distracts us with news, movies, and consumption. It’s not enough, as we know — especially at three in the morning. We need reminders to be good, places to reawaken awe, something to reawaken our kinder, less selfish impulses — universal things, which need tending, like delicate flowers, and rituals that bring us together.

The choice isn’t between religion and the secular world, as it is now — the challenge is to learn from religions so we can fill the secular world with replacements for the things we long ago made up religion to provide. The challenge begins here.

For more on this slippery but vital question, see Alan Lightman on finding transcendent moments in the secular world and Mary Oliver on a life well lived.

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